Reflections upon a delayed Daf Yomi Siyum Ha-Shas

Daf Yomi was my companion for the last eight years.

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachya says: Find yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend” (Avot 1:6).

Rashi explains this maxim in a way that greatly benefits bibliophiles: our friends are books!

Close to eight years ago, as a college student who otherwise was not learning tons of Gemara, I decided to jump on the Daf Yomi bandwagon. I felt the need to encounter more of what Chazal had to teach us about halacha, avodat Hashem (serving God), and life. There is so much to see in the Talmud – Daf Yomi was the perfect way to gain more exposure in a programmatic way. I do not know at the time if I believed that I would finish, but I couldn’t not try.

Everyone knows that you cannot remember everything you learn in the Daf Yomi. For many, that is a reason to not participate. But for those of us who do, how do we reconcile that we speed through a whole page in 30-45 minutes, likely not remembering the details in just a few days? In learning Talmud, every line matters. It is not just a story where we need to remember the general plot – to master halacha, one needs to understand every nuance found on the page.

There are different layers of our relationship with Torah. I have heard a few times Rav Hershel Schachter quote his rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik z”l, as comparing Torah knowledge with stages of marriage. One who is at the level of “eirusin,” who is betrothed to Torah, has a strong bond with Torah. They are scholarly and exhibit a high caliber of knowledge of Torah. The stage of being betrothed is one where the relationship is firmly in place. Yet, a select few individuals may be described as having “nisuin,” marriage, with the Torah. They intuit Torah the way spouses after years of marriage can intuit each other’s thoughts and feelings.

I might suggest that learning Daf Yomi made me a friend of Talmud. Daf Yomi does not bring one to be a Talmud scholar; a lot more work is required for that. It is not eirusin and certainly not nisu’in. But it might be a friendship.

In a friendship, you do not know everything about the other person. You might not even remember every conversation you have. Yet, you feel a bond, and you get to know the other person more through the frequent conversations. There are essential characteristics and qualities that you appreciate about the other person. With Daf Yomi, the friend that I acquired, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachya suggested, I learned more about how the Talmud speaks and its major characteristics. Concepts that are important in Talmud become increasingly familiar. The more conversations we had, the more I learned. Certain passages were particularly memorable. When I made a siyum on Tanach a few years ago, I quoted a passage from Nedarim that spoke of the necessity of the section of Nevi’im. One of my teachers said, “that’s one of my favorite Gemaras – how did you know it?” After all, it’s in Nedarim, which is not frequently studied by the masses. But I remembered it from Daf Yomi.

Over the last eight years, Daf Yomi was with me everywhere. It was with me in at least sixteen different states, not to mention Canada, Germany, Poland, and Israel. The number of different cars, trains (Amtrak and Subway), airplanes; hotel rooms, dorm rooms, homes, batei midrash. The strongest of friendships continue no matter where you are; this was true about the daf and me. Just like I invited my friends to my wedding, I made sure that I did that daf on the morning of my wedding; it was there with me. Ilana Kurshan writes in her memoir that when she was single, she would learn Daf Yomi during dinner, “careful not to drip tomato sauce upon discussions about the sprinkling of blood on the Temple altar.”[1] Daf Yomi was also many times my dinner companion. She further writes, “Throughout it all daf yomi has remained a constant in my life.” That is certainly true of me as well. I moved numerous times over the course of those years. I went through dating during these years. My friendships with other people changed. But Daf Yomi was with me from the beginning until now.

To be truthful, I was not always a good friend. I am writing this in April, three months after the official Siyum Ha-Shas, because I missed many days and had to catch up. This particularly became difficult during my most intense year of learning for semicha a few years ago. Nonetheless, I am appreciative that Hashem gave me the energy to get back on and to persist to the end.

While I began as a college student who was learning Talmud on a limited basis, I feel blessed that I was able to spend many years during my Daf Yomi years learning Talmud and halacha in a more intense fashion, and now I get to teach it. In an intangible way, Daf Yomi enhanced my capacity to learn.

For now, I do not plan to continue learning Daf Yomi. I hope my relationship with each daf I learn going forward will grow into a deeper friendship.

[1] Ilana Kurshan, If All the Seas were Ink, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017, p. 14.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and teaches middle school Judaic Studies at Ramaz. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and he learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion.
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